St. Louis is an interesting historical town, a cultural bastion that inspired the American song classic “Saint Louis Blues.” It is the birthplace of Josephine Baker and Chuck Berry. Renowned collector of exquisite art, gourmet cook and Hollywood horror film staple Vincent Price hailed from St. Louis. Its proximity to the Mississippi River made the settlement a thriving port city that developed into an economic and cultural melting pot, as well as a vibrant party town.
St. Louis is in the state of Missouri that technically remained Union during the Civil War, but by just a hair. It is a Midwestern region with a lot of Southern conservative views (and problems) that still prevail today.
When St. Louis filmmaker Geoff Story visited an estate sale on Lindell Boulevard in the 1990s, he bought some home movies. Upon viewing the films, he realized he was in possession of unique artifacts of clandestine gay life of St. Louis from 1945. The footage is wholesome: gay men relaxing at a pool party, having a laugh, openly showing affection even though same-sex relationships were illegal at the time. Since finding this treasure, Story and his co-director Beth Prusaczyk embarked on the documentary Gay Home Movie, using the found footage while trying to track down the folks at the pool party. When it became apparent the pool-party attendees were deceased, the documentarians moved on to interviewing surviving relatives of the men.
The home movies were part of the estate of Buddy Walton. According to Walton’s nice Susie Seagraves, Walton was known in St. Louis as “hairdresser to the stars,” and would accommodate the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Ethel Merman, Joan Crawford, Margot Fonteyn, and all the Gabor sisters at his salon at The Chase Hotel when they came to town. Seagraves filled in more information, such as identifying the pool location in the flicks as belonging to the Micatto family. Sam Micatto was Walton’s partner.
For a firsthand gay experience in the Gateway City from the 1940s to present, Story and Prusaczyk interviewed lifelong St. Louis resident Richard Eaton, 78. In much of that period, Eaton, who was a high school counselor for 40 years, lead a “double life.” In his social circle, he went by Richard.
“If somebody approached me and called me ‘Rich,’ I knew they were associated with the Ladue School District,” Eaton said. “And so that’s how I kept my identity separate.”
Eaton married his partner John Durnell in 2014, in a ceremony officiated by then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Gay Home Movie also addresses segregated gay life in St. Louis. In the home-movie footage, African-Americans in white uniforms are shown to be servants, as the white men in and around the pool lounge and have fun, “a number of the men [with] wedding rings on,” Prusaczyk noticed. Prusaczyk assessed the white men’s secret lives were protected by their wealth to a far greater extent than the lives of African-American gay men.
“There is a sadness when I look at these films. And I think people who maybe were of less means had a harder time,” Story added.
Even though the home movies have no appearances by women, the documentary celebrates a rich history with 81-year-old Betty Neeley, who opened up about her life as a lesbian in St. Louis. Neeley said she was never in the closet, that her mom even drove her to her first lesbian bar. A poster size photo of Neeley in 1953 on her K Model Harley Davidson motorcycle hung for years in the now-closed Lily’s establishment frequented by lesbians. Bars were the safest of places according to Neeley.
“People say, ‘Why didn’t you have a house party?’” Neeley said. “Oh, yeah, that’s great. Neighbors next door complain to your landlord you had 12 men-looking women in your house last night—next day I’d have to move.”
Of the footage that inspired Gay Home Movie, Story said, “I just knew that it was gold, it was something special.”
Hollywood executive Brian Graden (South Park) thinks Gay Home Movie is gold, with “huge potential.”
“It speaks to a wide array of people on a very deep level,” Graden said. “What are the chances someone would go to an estate sale and pick up these canisters of old footage? It’s almost like these men are trying to talk to us from beyond the grave.”